The Chaplain: A poem for Anzac Day

It’s Anzac Day today. At commemorative dawn services throughout Australia and New Zealand, and at the many scenes of shared battles across the globe – Gallipoli, Villers-Bretonneux and along the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, to name a few – people pause to reflect on war and to commemorate the men and women who have gone to war. Those that came back and those that lost their lives.

A couple of years ago, leading up to the one hundredth anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli, a call went out from Southerly Journal requesting submissions on the subject of war and peace. I’d had an idea for a poem about war veterans brewing in my mind for a while; I decided to see if I could work my ideas into something worthy of, not just submission, but the topic itself.

I researched Gallipoli, interested mostly in what the soldiers themselves had written about it, how they had perceived it. How they’d been scarred by it.

I made the Southerly Journal deadline but my poem was not selected for publication. Last year Meuse Press put out a call for submissions for an anthology entitled To End All Wars. I submitted my poem, with some minor changes from the original version, but again, it didn’t make the cut.

Shortly after I finished my poem in 2015 I read it to my family. I had read it aloud to myself several times when I was in the final stages of editing, finding that only when I read it aloud was I able to hear the rhythms of the poem’s lines. I had never become emotional when reading it to myself, but as I read it to my mother, my brother and my sister-in-law I found myself holding back tears, and struggling to stop my voice from cracking.

I was embarrassed that my own poetry had made me so emotional. When I looked up into my family’s faces after reading the last line I saw their own eyes had welled up, and two little lines of tears were streaming down my sister-in-law’s face.

Only four other people have read my poem – friends with whom I’d discussed it from the time it was still just an idea, and who’d expressed an interest in reading it when finished. All of them have given me positive feedback.

This small handful of positive responses is why I believe in my poem. I’m not sure I’ll submit it for publication anywhere else, so for the time being I will share it here, on my blog.

The small introductory passage that follows is what I wrote in my submission to Meuse Press, last year.

 

I wrote The Chaplain last year, after several months researching Gallipoli, specifically the experiences of the Australians who fought or were otherwise caught up in it. But really, the formulation of my protagonist, Don, started decades ago when I would watch the old men marching on Anzac Day (as they mostly were back then, before families joined in) and wonder what was hiding behind their eyes. What had they seen?

I wondered what war had done to them and others like them the world over. How might they begin to find peace with what they had done and what had been done to them.

In my own life, finding peace after a period of inner turmoil has only come after the intervention of a relative stranger. Someone whom I knew for only a short period of time but who played a pivotal role in my life.

For Don, my protagonist, the person who has that role is the army chaplain.

 

The Chaplain

There can be no peace without forgiveness, the Chaplain said,
And I thought he was naïve – a fool;
There was no way I would forgive what had been done.

Not by the men we’d fought against, mind you –
We’d looked each other in the eye
Collecting our dead together
And in that moment knew we were alike:
Ordinary blokes
Caught up in something bigger than we’d dreamed
Back when we’d queued to enlist, jostling excitedly like schoolboys,
Hoping we’d pass muster – dreading being told
We weren’t up to scratch and couldn’t go.
Thinking it was all a great adventure –
That it would make men of us,
But it didn’t take long
For war to wipe the smiles from our faces.

No, it was our side I could not forgive:
Those that led us from afar,
Afraid if they came too close they’d smell the death,
The rotting corpses mounting up and up and up –
Right up to the trenches,
So you felt you had to sleep with one eye open
Lest one of them reach out for you as you slept
And drag you up to join them.

The British Generals,
Whose miscalculations had sent us to the wrong beach –
The wrong beach!
Those sadistic bastards
Who thought nothing of sending good men
After good men
To their deaths,
Who sent us over the top again and again
As if they would not be satisfied
Till we were all lying dead
In No Man’s Land –
No,
I would never forgive them.

But the Chaplain had said,
There is no peace without forgiveness,
And I could not forget it;
As the years passed I saw that he was right.

I forgave those men whom I had hated for so long,
The men I’d cursed every Anzac Day
As I’d grimly marched, the medals on my chest.
Old men who were mostly dead or surely close to it;
What was the use of hating them now?

Better to let it go
And finally have a chance at peace, I told myself,
Thinking I knew what he’d meant all those years ago,
Even if I hadn’t been ready to hear it back then –
Back when we came home to live in peace
But were still at war with ourselves.
When we struggled,
Haunted by the sights and sounds of war
Replaying in our dreams,
Like some personal nightly horror show.

If I let the hate go
Perhaps I’d be okay, I thought,
Because I’d seen too many who’d failed
At surviving.
Men who ended it all with a rope or the gas or a bullet in the head –
Good men, honest men –
Even great men we’d looked up to –
Heroes
Like Throssell –
Unable to live with the terror in their mind.
Those men could not forgive
The barbarity,
The crushing inhumanity,
The sickening disgrace of it all.

Over and over the words repeated in my head:
There can be no peace without forgiveness.
But it was many years again before I understood
What he had meant.

Years of aching for a peace that hadn’t come,
An ungodly hollowness growing bigger and bigger within me
As I switched off from life – like so many others –
And tried to kill myself
One bottle at a time.
To hurt the ones I loved
So they would see me as I saw myself:
Some kind of beast who’d killed and maimed,
Who’d shot and stuck men through
So close he’d seen the flicker of surprise in their eyes
And heard their last groans as they fell.
I wanted them to see what I had become in war,
To hate me as I hated myself.

I tried to kill off all that was good about my life,
Punish myself in every possible way,
But still it was not enough;
I could not atone for my sins.
I stared long and hard into the void within
And knew – at last I knew –
Whom I had to forgive.

There can be no peace without forgiveness, Don,
He’d said.
They can’t forgive, they’re gone.
They’re not here to do it for you.
Over and over the words played in my head
And when one day their meaning was revealed
I began, in earnest, to forgive.

To forgive myself for having survived.
For being there every Anzac Day,
Raising beers in their name,
Telling stories that would never grow old,
Yes –
As they would never grow old –
And saying, Lest we Forget, as if I ever could.

To forgive myself for thanking God after every burst of shrapnel
And every rain of bullets
Because I hadn’t been killed
And some other poor chap had.
For wishing men would die quickly –
If they had to die –
So I wouldn’t have to hear their agonising screams.

To forgive myself for treading softly as I left
With sacks around my feet,
A mixture of relief and shame in my heart;
Relief that I was leaving my hell behind,
Shame that I was leaving my mates behind.

To forgive myself for abandoning them –
For failing them –
Even when it made me sick to my stomach
That the whole thing had been a waste.

To forgive myself because their death had been a waste.

To understand that I had been a boy,
A young man no more or less experienced in life than my friends
Who had died.

To understand that none of it was my fault.

To know I could have done no different.

To forgive myself for the sins I’d carried
For forty years,
Sins, I realised, which were not mine after all.

And in understanding,
In forgiving,
To begin, at last, to heal.
To mend what had been broken for so long –
To piece it together bit by bit.
And finally,
In forgiveness,
To find a kind of peace.

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I can do this

Hello? Hel-loooo?? Is anyone out there? Anyone??

Well, I’ll just leave this here and see if anyone notices.

So look, when I wrote my last post – over 15 months ago! – I had no idea it would be my last post for a while. In fact, that post was the first I’d written in some time so when I wrote it I felt like perhaps I was back. But I wasn’t. I was just making a guest appearance in a show we’ll call “The Silence of Len’s Blog”. (It doesn’t rate that well but it keeps getting renewed.)

So where have I been hiding? What have I been doing? Well, for the first time since I started freelancing back in May 2013, I worked consistently for over a year – moving from employer to employer and project to project without a break. Some months I was juggling multiple projects, even multiple employers.

Given how much sitting in front of a computer and writing I do in my professional life, I find it hard when I’m working to spend my free time doing exactly that: sitting in front of a computer and writing more.

But I have been writing. There’s been a truckload of poetry, mostly scribbled into my notebook, but also typed into my phone (and in some cases shared via Twitter).

I’ve also handwritten a lot of little micro-fiction pieces into my writer’s diary, using its weekly prompts. I’ve viewed these as small writing exercises to keep my mind fit creatively. Like doing daily sit-ups but for writing. But I also entered three of my favourite pieces in the Fish Publishing Flash Fiction Contest last year, and one piece even made it onto the long list.

So writing was on my mind a lot last year. And in fact, the whole time I was working I told myself that the moment I’d get some free time I’d start working again on a project I last worked on in 2013. It started life as an idea for a screenplay. Then I thought it was better suited to a novel, then maybe a novella. But recently I’ve realised it will be best written as a memoir.

The only problem is, I’m not working at the moment and while I’ve kept myself busy doing other things, it’s been three months and I have spent bugger-all time on my project.

It’s made me question whether I really do want to write this thing. I’m a big believer that if you want something you will take steps to get it. If instead you make excuses and create obstacles for yourself, you probably don’t want what it is you say you want.

So why this post now? Well, three recent events have conspired to motivate me.

Firstly, I attended an excellent introductory course on writing memoir, taught by the amazing Lee Kofman. I may write more about this in future, but for the moment suffice to say I had a huge epiphany about my idea as a result of her incredible skill as a teacher and mentor. I left the course that day feeling very positive about what I needed to do.

Secondly, I saw the film Hidden Figures, about three women who epitomized the “stop talking about it and just get out there and do it” ethos that fuelled much of the rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s. After seeing what these three women achieved, I came out of the cinema feeling anything was possible.

And lastly, my very talented 19-year-old niece was recently published in a magazine. Her article was about a deeply personal subject and while I very much admired how well-written it was, what really blew me away was how completely honest she was. How brave she had been to put herself out there in the way she had, acknowledging it was difficult but that she had to do it, to do her subject justice. And I realised if she can show such courage, I can, too.

These three very different experiences all left me thinking and feeling the same thing: Yes, I can do this. And, more importantly, I want to do this. So this post is to announce it to the world. Not that I’m back as a blogger. But that yes, I want to do this. And I can do this.

And I will.

 

Note: I haven’t yet sought permission from my niece to share her article but I will ask and, if granted, I’ll update this post with a link.

Reading, writing and resolutions

Just over a year ago I wrote very enthusiastically in support of new year’s resolutions – how they’re an opportunity to reflect on the previous year and think about ways to improve yourself by resolving to change something, whether a habit, a lifestyle choice or even just an attitude.

So it’s somewhat ironic then that I didn’t go on to set any new year’s resolutions for 2014.

The truth is, when I’d looked back on 2013 I realised I’d had one of the best years of my life. So I took the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ approach and decided I didn’t need any resolutions for 2014.

Two points to note here:

Firstly, I didn’t look back critically enough. If I’d looked even a smidge harder, I would’ve found things.

Secondly, even if I hadn’t found anything obvious to change I should’ve at least set a few “continue goals”. (You’ll know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever had to do those God-awful performance plans for work; basically you identify what you’ve been doing well and set a goal to continue it.)

I took it for granted that things would continue as they were.

They didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, last year was a good year, too. I’m not complaining. But as I’ve already written, I lost my way a bit with my writing.

Looking back I realise that was inevitable given I hadn’t started the year defining a direction, a focus.

So, given all that, you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve set some resolutions for 2015, nor that they are all geared – directly or indirectly – towards reinvigorating me as a writer and helping me find my way again.

1) More writing. Firstly, this is stating the obvious so I don’t lose sight of the main goal. Secondly, the more writing you do, the better writer you’ll be. In theory, anyway.

2) More reading. This should not only help me reconnect with my love of reading, but also be a practical tool to improve my writing. Just about every list of tips for emerging writers includes an edict to read, read, read and then read some more.

3) Less social media. Especially looking at you here, Twitter. I think most of you will know what I’m talking about (even if for most people, the enormous time-sucking beast is Facebook). Enough said.

4) More yoga. I took up yoga in September and October when I wasn’t working much; guided by a really good yoga app I was doing 45-70 minute yoga routines about three times a week. I absolutely loved it.

Then I started working more frequently and had less time for yoga and eventually stopped it altogether.

I need to bring it back into my life. It’s a great way of maintaining and improving strength and flexibility, and it makes me feel confident, happy and up for writing. It’s no coincidence I wrote more blog posts last October than in the four months either side of it.

5) Get to bed earlier, get up earlier*. I have a tendency to be a night owl, which, if the time were used productively, wouldn’t be an issue. But it isn’t, and the next day I’m exhausted and moody because I haven’t had enough sleep. So exhausted and moody that I don’t want to write. This has to change.

The resolutions are only one tool to help me get back on track with writing. The other tool I’ve invested in is a Writer’s Diary.

I’m not sure if there are lots of writer’s diaries out there on the market, but mine’s by Pilot Press and it’s fantastic. There’s lots of information to encourage and inspire, there are weekly exercises and a space for monthly goals.

Writer's Diary by pilot press (closed)

All of it has been very helpful in a practical way and it’s already responsible for increasing my creative output exponentially in comparison to last year. I love it and I can’t recommend it highly enough for any emerging writers out there.

Thanks to my writer’s diary and the changes inspired by my resolutions, I’m writing more frequently, thinking more creatively about my writing, exploring different styles and genres and generally challenging myself in ways I never have before.

I’m finding my way again. I have the lantern; it illuminates the path. I feel excited and positive as I start to follow it. I can’t wait to see where it will lead.

* Everything’s relative. Lest anyone think I’m trying to become a morning-person (as if!), I’m just aiming to get to bed by midnight and be up by 9:00am.

If I must confess

“Forgive me readers for I have sinned
It’s been three months since my last blog post…”

Yep, it’s been three months – in fact, over three months, since my last blog post. In fact, so far this year I’ve written only six posts, while same time last year I’d written 29 posts. Bit of a difference.

It’s not writer’s block. Or at least, I don’t think it is. It’s more stage fright. But then, maybe that’s a kind of writer’s block.

The thing is, I’ve had lots of ideas for posts. I’ve even written a lot of notes. But I’ve had very little motivation to actually sit down and write; and while other areas of my writing have suffered as well, the blog has taken the biggest hit.

I was at a loss to explain it until recently when it finally dawned on me: I lost my confidence. Didn’t think I had anything of interest to say. I’d get ideas and make notes and then think, ‘Oh who cares what you have to say!’ and the momentum would peter out.

The one thing I have had the confidence to continue doing this year is submit my writing for publication, as I’d done with my flash fiction story. I’ve even had a tiny bit of success with a poem I submitted to Good Morning Bedtime Story’s international mental health poetry competition earlier in the year being highly commended; that was pretty thrilling.

The post that follows this one is a piece of short memoir that was originally written for submission to an annual anthology on the theme of “encounters”. When it didn’t make it through, I decided to develop it further and submit it to another anthology; this time the theme was “loss”. I’ve added another part to it and am now working on a third part.

Unfortunately for the anthology, I got my dates wrong and have missed the deadline. But it’s not all bad news: the anthology’s loss is my blog’s gain, as I’ve decided to publish all three pieces here. And I have to confess, it does feel nice to be able to post something that I feel needs to be ‘out there’; specifically to have the confidence to press “publish” once again, without using someone else as a buffer.

Hope you enjoy reading it.

Please hold…

Regular readers (if I have any left) will have noticed that I’ve been on a bit of a blog break over December-January.

It wasn’t actually my intention but it turns out that I’d gotten so used to not working (and having all the time in the world to write) that when I did start working again in late November, balancing work with a) the lead up to Christmas and b) going-to-the-beach-weather was all that I could cope with.

Finding time to write, as well as work and go Christmas shopping/go to the beach was more than I could handle.

But I’m onto it. I am working on a plan to find more time for writing so hope to be back regularly contributing posts very soon.

For the moment, however, please continue to hold until normal services resume.

The Luxury of Endless Possibilities

“The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.” – Steve Jobs

As much as I’m not at all interested in the subject* (if you’ll excuse the pun), you’d have to be living under a rock in Australia to not know that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge – William and Kate – have had a baby.

While I haven’t really followed any of the media coverage, one newspaper headline caught my attention: “Born to Rule.”

Imagine knowing at their birth what your child will be when they grow up. Imagine being that child. Perhaps in some countries that is the norm, but this is a child in a society in which most children spend their formative years projecting into the future and talking about what they’ll do when they grow up. And then playing at that. Theirs is the prerogative to change their mind frequently, too: I want to be a fireman. No, train driver. No, policeman… etc.

I remember hearing the song “Paperback Writer” by the Beatles when I was about six or seven years old and immediately wanting to be a writer. Preferably of paperbacks. There may well have been other things I wanted to be before then but that’s the earliest one I remember.

By the time I’d reached about 11 I’d discovered a passionate sense of justice and wanted to be a lawyer, to defend the weak. A year or two later I somehow caught sight of a law library and the many thick books I thought I’d need to read and memorise and I let go of that particular dream.

I was about 14 when I decided I wanted to be a journalist, and in Year 10 I secured a week’s work experience at the local newspaper. For the most part they had me sub-editing the television guide and community notices, but I also accompanied two of the senior reporters on their assignments.

First I went out with a reporter who was going to interview a young boy who had cancer. I thought she was incredibly compassionate until we got back into the car and she complained to the photographer that she was “sick and tired of being lumped with the human interest stories”.

Then I went out with a news reporter to a press conference given by a policeman who’d been shot the previous week by a gunman who was still on the loose. The press conference was held at Dandenong Hospital and as we drove there the reporter turned to the photographer and said, “Wouldn’t it be great if [the gunman] turned up at the hospital and started shooting everybody?”

“How would that be great?” asked the photographer.

I’ll never forget the journo’s reply: “We’d have the story!”

My desire to be a journalist more or less ended on the spot.

What happens when a young Prince George declares that he wants to be a train driver? Does everyone roll their eyes? Does a nanny tut-tut him? Or do they humour him?

Perhaps it’s not even like that. Maybe he grows up from day naught knowing that he’ll be a king in waiting all his life (until his turn comes up to do what he was born to do), meanwhile serving in the military.

In Year 12 our careers counsellor provided us with a book that listed every occupation under the sun and the training or skills you needed for each. It’s online now but was a hard copy book back in the late 1980s, and I loved flicking through its pages. There were so many different things you could be and do.

I’m not saying we should pity little Prince George, who has not only been born into a position of wealth and privilege but in a loving family, too (though I’m sure many of us don’t envy the scrutiny under which his entire life will be conducted).

It does make me feel very lucky, though, to have had the simple luxury to dream about the endless possibilities of what I could be, and the opportunity to do what I love.

*I’m reminded of the classic Oscar Wilde story where he was at a dinner party and boasted he could talk wittily about any subject. “The Queen!” nominated one guest, to which Oscar Wilde responded, “The Queen is not a subject!”

When life is like a game of Tetris

Finally.

I’m sitting at my desk to write. It’s something I haven’t done in a few weeks. More accurately, it’s something I haven’t done since I started back at work.

I’ve picked up a two month contract as a technical writer which I’m enjoying immensely. Not only is the work interesting and challenging, and exactly what I want to be doing, but the people at my temporary work place are great. They’re clever, professional and passionate about what they do, and they’ve been really welcoming. I couldn’t be happier.

The only trouble is, after taking four months off, it’s been a bit of a shock to the system to go back to full time work, and not just because I’m not a morning person. The real problem is figuring out how to fit all the bits of my life into a 24 hour day and a seven day week, when there’s one thing in it that seems to take up all the time and not leave much room, or energy, for anything else.

Work takes up nearly 52 hours a week, once I’ve added my lunch break and commute to and from work. I find that I’m struggling to get to basic domestic duties like cooking or hanging out washed clothes to dry. How did I fit these things in before?

I know I did it for over a decade and I’m sure I’ll get on top of it all again but somehow I need to find time to write creatively, too. Something I only really started to focus on since finishing work in January. So I not only need to get my work/life balance back, I have to get a work/life/writing balance.

I feel like my life has suddenly become like a game of Tetris. The pieces keep falling: go to work, walk the dog, cook dinner, call Mum, go to the supermarket, vacuum the house, go to the market, go to the movies, read the paper, check Twitter, wash the dishes, wash the dog, catch up with family, catch up with friends… on and on they come. “Go to work” is such a big piece: I’m trying to remember how I used to fit in all the other pieces. The thing is, every time the “I want to write” piece drops down I can’t fit it in anywhere and the pieces pile up out of control and the game ends. I lose.

I know, from personal experience as well as observation, that the busier you are, the better you become at organising your time. Several years ago I worked full time and studied part time and somehow I managed to find an extra ten or so hours in what was already a pretty busy week to fit in lectures, tutorials, study and homework, without compromising the rest of my life very much at all. So I know it’s solvable.

I also know it’s a matter of discipline. At the moment, when I come home after sitting in front of a computer and writing all day, the last thing I want to do is sit at a computer and write some more. But if writing is important to me, and it is, then I have to prioritise it and I have to find the mental discipline – and energy – to just sit down and write.

Meanwhile, it may be a little quiet on the ol’ blog front. Please be patient and understanding. I’m stuck in a game of Tetris.

Pieces piling up in the game Tetris